Why this history is relevant today, as the United States commemorates the tenth anniversary of the disastrous Iraq War, is that it was the Reagan administration’s success in housebreaking the Washington press corps that guaranteed that only a handful of mainstream journalists would ask tough questions about President George W. Bush’s case for invading Iraq.
Put yourself in the shoes of an aspiring Washington correspondent in 2002-2003. Your immediate editors and bureau chiefs were people who succeeded professionally during the 1980s and 1990s. They climbed the ladder by not reaching out for the difficult stories that challenged Republican presidents and earned the wrath of right-wing attack groups. They kept their eyes firmly on the backsides of those above them.
The journalists who did the hard work during that era suffered devastating career damage, again and again. Indeed, they had been made into object lessons for others. Even progressive publications, which wanted some “credibility” with the mainstream, turned away.
In other words, a decade ago – as in the 1980s and 1990s – there was little or no reward in challenging the Bush administration over its claims about Iraq’s WMD, while there was a very big danger. After all, what if you had written a tough story questioning Bush’s case for war and had managed somehow to pressure your editors to run it prominently – and then what if some WMD stockpiles were discovered in Iraq?
Your career would end in ignominy. You would forever be “the Saddam Hussein apologist” who doubted the Great War President, George W. Bush. You would probably be expected to resign to spare your news organization further embarrassment. If not, your editors would likely compel you to leave in disgrace.
People may forget now but it took guts to challenge Bush back then. Remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks, a popular music group, when they dared to express disagreement with Bush’s war of choice. They faced boycotts and death threats.
At Consortiumnews.com in 2002-2003, we ran a number of stories questioning Bush’s WMD claims and his other arguments for war – and even though we were only an Internet site, I got angry e-mails every time the U.S. invading forces found a 55-gallon drum of chemicals. The e-mails demanded that I admit I was wrong and telling me that I owed Bush an apology. [For details on the wartime reporting, see Neck Deep.]
When I would read those comments, I would flash back to the stomach-turning angst that I felt as a correspondent for AP and Newsweek when I published a story that I knew would open me to a new round of attacks. At those moments, all I had was confidence in my tradecraft, the belief that I had followed the rules of journalism in carefully assessing and presenting the evidence.
Still, there is no certainty in journalism. Even the most careful reporting can contain imprecision or errors. But that imperfection becomes a major problem when the rewards and punishments are skewed too widely, when the slightest problem on one side leads to loss of your livelihood while gross mistakes on the other carry no punishment at all.
That was the core failure of the U.S. news media on the Iraq War. By 2002-2003, a generation or more of American journalists had absorbed this career reality. There was grave danger to question Bush’s claims while there was little risk in going with the flow.
And, if you made that assessment a decade ago, you were right. Even though you were wrong journalistically in promoting or staying silent on Bush’s assertions about Iraq’s WMD, you almost surely continued your career climb. If questioned about why you got the WMD question wrong, you could simply say that “everyone got it wrong” – or at least everyone who mattered – so it would be unfair to single anyone out for blame.
But most likely, no one who mattered would even ask the question because those folks had been traveling in the same pack, spouting the same groupthink. So, if it seems odd to some Americans that today they are reading and watching the same pundits who misled them into a catastrophic war a decade ago, it shouldn’t.